The number of Leaving Cert students availing of special arrangements on the grounds of learning disability has climbed to a record high.
Almost 25,000 students, almost one in five overall, were granted “accommodations” – such as spelling waivers or reading assistance – last year by the State Examinations Commission (SEC).
The numbers, up from 15,000 or 13 per cent in 2014, have been rising every year over the past decade.
Education observers say the increase is likely linked to greater awareness of additional needs and a school-based application process, introduced in 2016-2017, aimed at enabling greater access to the “reasonable accommodation scheme”.
This year’s State exams are due to get under way on Wednesday, with more than 130,000 candidates due to sit Junior Cycle and Leaving Cert exams.
Reasonable accommodations are designed to remove, as far as possible, the impact of a disability on a candidate’s performance and enable the candidate to access the state examinations on an equal basis with other students.
It is not aimed at giving candidate an unfair advantage over other candidates in the same exam.
The most common form of accommodation approved last year was a spelling or grammar waiver (given to almost 13,000 candidates), followed by reading assistance (8,000), an exemption from an exam component such as aural exam for those with hearing difficulties (almost 4,000) or use of a word processor (more than 3,000).
Hundreds of candidates were also approved for the use of scribes, recording devices or visual modifications.
Thousands have also been approved to sit exams in “special centres”, typically small classrooms rather than large exam halls.
The question of whether additional time to complete the exams should be given to some students has proved controversial.
Students with dyslexia – who are not currently eligible for additional time – have campaigned this year for more time to complete the exams.
Dyslexia, which affects approximately one in 10 people, is estimated to affect thousands of students due to sit the State exams.
The Dyslexia Association of Ireland, whose petition seeking extra time has attracted almost 20,000 signatures, says extra time would help level the playing field for students with the condition.
It maintains that Ireland is an “outlier” in not providing extra time for students at second level, given that it is an established option for dyslexic students in countries such as France, Italy and the UK.
Rosie Bissett, chief executive of the Dyslexia Association of Ireland, said: “Extra time is universally recognised as a reasonable accommodation in timed exams and is available to second level students with dyslexia across most of Europe so why are young people with dyslexia in Ireland denied this accommodation?”
In a statement, the SEC said an extensive range of supports such as spelling or grammar waivers were available to students with special educational needs in accessing the State exams under the Race (Reasonable Accommodations at the Certificate Examinations) scheme.
While additional time is not granted in its own right, some candidates – such as those who must use a scribe or have a visual impairment – may be given 10 minutes extra per hour for certain subjects.
The commission said an expert advisory group had previously highlighted the challenge in providing time-related accommodations in a fair way.
The group noted that ensuring extra time was restricted only to those who would achieve no advantage was “well-nigh impossible”.
“It would require intensive screening of each individual applicant by professionals and, even then, given the variation in the nature and severity of special needs, it would be extremely difficult to decide how much time was required by a candidate and whether or not the additional time conferred an advantage in the examination,” the group concluded.